Dagenham & Rainham is a guitar-shaped, outer east London constituency with its fret board pointing north and its round end spread along the north bank of the Thames. Its political mood music is very different from that of most Greater London seats, with its electorate singing a very particular blend of tunes.
Six of Dagenham & Rainham’s nine wards are in the borough of Barking & Dagenham, whose 51 councillors are all Labour. The other three wards are in the southern tip of Havering to the east and reflect that borough’s highly distinctive local politics, in which residents’ association councillors form a significant presence in a Tory-led authority that shares a border with Essex.
A majority of people in both boroughs voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum. Only five of the capital’s 33 local authorities voted Leave. Barking & Dagenham was the only Labour-run one. Dagenham & Rainham voters are estimated to have preferred Leave to Remain by 70 per cent to 30. The seat’s MP since its creation in 2010 has been Labour’s Jon Cruddas who, before that, had represented the old Dagenham constituency since 2001. This is, therefore, London’s little piece of Labour Leave country, and comparisons with places in the North and Midlands of England that Labour is now desperately trying to defend do not end there.
I met Cruddas on Tuesday in a café near Dagenham East station on the District Line, noting as I waited for him to arrive the relative ubiquity of old-fashioned London accents among my fellow customers – still a feature of visits to this part of the capital’s vast and varied landscape.
Getting around this territory quickly often requires a car. As Cruddas drove I put to him a shorthand characterisation of Dagenham & Rainham as a historically blue-collar, primarily Labour-voting and now Leave-leaning place still recovering from decades of de-industrialisation – a place with, on the face of it, much in common with those elsewhere in the country characterised as “left behind”.
“I think that’s a totally fair description on one level, but there are other issues that sort of challenge that,” he said. “One is the fact that it is in London, so there’s demographic change. It’s a rapidly-changing community.” The big motors for this are the familiar ones. “There is an extraordinary movement of young families into this community, driven by the patterns of the housing market.”
Homes to buy or privately rent have long been cheaper in this area than in any other part of London. No wonder they are a draw. Cruddas was recently accompanied on doorstep visits by John Biggs, once the London assembly Member for the area, but more recently the Mayor of Tower Hamlets. Lots of people recognised him.
The decades-long phenomenon of inner city Londoners migrating to the suburbs and beyond has been particularly pronounced here during Cruddas’s tenure as MP, including since 2017, he said. Related to this, the seat’s age profile has altered radically too. “This now one of the youngest boroughs in London. When I started out it was one of the oldest. The birthrate is one of the highest in the whole country.” It’s also far more ethnically mixed than it used to be. In 2001, 80 per cent of the population of Barking & Dagenham as a whole was White British, according to the census of that year. By 2011, less than half of it was.
It is a paradox of this stretch of east London that, on the surface, much of it looks and feels untouched by recent metropolitan shifts in styles and tastes while, at the same time, such tremendous human churn is taking place and, in parallel with it, a sustained drive for social and economic refreshment, much of it nurtured by Barking & Dagenham Council, with which Cruddas works closely.
A prime site for this greets you as you emerge from Dagenham East station. Across the road to the left of the rail tracks lies the intended location of council leader Darren Rodwell’s most high-profile project – a major new film and TV studio. Recent reports that the financing has fallen through have been dismissed by the council, whose regeneration company, Be First, is taking the plans forward with a view to attracting further investment. Two large data hosting buildings already occupy part of the space formerly filled by the pharmaceutical firm Sanofi. University College London will be opening a research facility there. The Secret Cinema has been running Casino Royale nights.
Nearby, the old Dagenham Civic Centre building, next to the fire station, has become home to a London branch of Coventry University. And, on the horizon, the site of the former Barking Reach Power Station at Dagenham Dock has been purchased and picked out by the City of London Corporation as a new home for all three of London’s historic wholesale food markets, Smithfield, Billingsgate and New Spitalfields.
Cruddas detects excitement about this prospect. For years, there has been talk about a revitalised Thames Gateway, a new era of progress and employment to fill the void left by the shrinking of the legendary Ford car production plant and the now distant death of London’s docks. At last, real stuff seems to be happening: “It’s more concrete, it has more potency than before”.
There’s major housing development too. Rodwell has pioneered new forms of “affordable” provision. Straddling the border between Barking & Dagenham and Havering, Beam Park, named after the River Beam (called the Rom further north), which forms the boundary between the boroughs, it will yield 3,000 homes, forming a new Outer London neighbourhood close to Dagenham Dock station.
The Havering part of the seat might be seen as the most problematic for a Labour candidate. Last year, while Barking & Dagenham was retaining its status as a one party state, Dagenham & Rainham’s three Havering wards, Elm Park, Rainham & Wennington and South Hornchurch, each returned their own trio of residents’ association councillors. Two of the nine have since joined the Conservative Group.
Into this novel mix has stepped Havering Council leader Damian White as Cruddas’s Tory challenger. Young, energetic and borough leader for only 18 months, he’s very firmly backing “Boris” and his party’s national message that a Tory majority national government would “get Brexit done”.
There is an obvious alignment with the constituency’s Leave leanings and a strand of sentiment that has expressed itself through different channels since at least 2006, when the British National Party won 12 Barking & Dagenham Council seats, and formed the official opposition. Four years later they were wiped out and party leader Nick Griffin was routed by Labour’s Margaret Hodge in the neighbouring Barking constituency in the general election held on the same day.
That year, 2010, the first of his seat’s existence, Cruddas’s nearest challenger was a Tory. His winning margin was 2,630 votes. But in 2015, UKIP were runners up, just under 5,000 votes behind him. The previous year, they’d picked up seven Havering Council seats. In 2017, Cruddas took his biggest vote share yet – just over 50 per cent – but the Tories again pushed him close, falling 4,652 short as the UKIP vote collapsed into their post-referendum laps. UKIP retained none of their Havering Council seats last year, but Johnson’s drive to woo the erstwhile UKIP vote, lately transferred to the Brexit Party, can only be helpful to White. There will be a Brexit Party candidate on the ballot paper, who could skim the icing off the Tory cake. But White is surely well in the running: yesterday’s YouGov MRP poll put him two percentage points ahead.
Cruddas, though, said he’s confident, arguing that having the leader of one of the two boroughs his constituency bestrides helps him make his campaign about something other than Brexit. He claims that Havering Council favours its strongholds in the north by heaping the most intensive and insensitive housing developments on to wards in the south. And he said he suspects White’s administration’s decision in July to withdraw long-contested plans to build on Dover’s Green, a community space in villagey Rainham, was not unconnected with White’s subsequent selection to contest Dagenham & Rainham. (Attempts to contact White, by email, through Twitter and via CCHQ, have so far been unsuccessful).
But Brexit still looms large. Cruddas was one of only two London Labour MPs to vote in favour of Johnson’s deal in the Commons (the other was Poplar & Limehouse’s outgoing Jim Fitzpatrick) despite having voted Remain in the referendum. Why? “I was a sort of cautious Remainer. But then it was a question of respecting the referendum. There is this tension between some of the economic issues and some of the democratic issues, right? It seems to me that you have to give voice to local views at certain times. You can’t disinvent referenda. They are not disposable things”. He is unhappy with the Peoples’ Vote campaign, saying it “ushers in all the things it is against, such a harder Brexit and a more populist, nationalist Conservative government”.
He took his decision to vote for Johnson’s deal even though he regards it as worse than Theresa May’s and recognises that falling out of the EU could hinder positive regeneration in his constituency. Ford is still an important local employer. Cruddas said they tell him that a “cliff edge” Brexit would be a problem. He wrote at the time he backed the “Boris” deal that it represented “one last chance to find a compromise that can break the impasse”. Yet now he says, “It’s not really a deal. This notion of ‘get Brexit done’ is a total fiction”. How cynical about Cruddas’s Brexit stance should we be?
Well, maybe not too cynical. In 2007, he finished third in an election to become Labour’s new deputy leader after a contest that paralleled the rather less competitive one, won by Gordon Brown, to succeed Tony Blair as leader and become Prime Minister. Cruddas may not have won, but his pitch attracted close interest. Support for him came largely, though not exclusively, from the unions and the Left (including the then Mayor Ken Livingstone), but his was not a wholly orthodox Left mission.
Rather, it was to find a way to renew the alliance between Britain’s liberal intelligentsia and its working-class communities that had long sustained Labour but was beginning to erode. He thinks Brexit and the conflicts it has focussed and inflamed has made that alliance still “more brittle” and presented “a challenge in terms of preserving an alignment between what used to be called the progressive dilemma of aligning its middle-class intellectual traditions with its class base”.
Cruddas expressed regret that his “series of ideas were never really grasped”. He allows that some of the Corbyn leadership’s ideas are “in line” with his thinking, such as strong regional banks, but “in terms of the general character of the party, I think it’s moving toward quite a clear, hyper-cosmopolitanism, which I think is challenging in terms of fidelity to community”.
Such tensions are, he said, “played out all the time” among residents of his constituency: “You can feel it when we talk.” And yet: “I’m more optimistic about the economic and social developments in Dagenham over the next ten years than I have been before.” Amid the fracture and churn, “It’s much more settled, much less angry,” than it was. “There’s also a sense of a traditional working-class community that is retained, and actually will be rebuilt.” The arrival of the three great London food markets will, he hopes, create a sense among some households, perhaps with dockers in their histories, that a London lost to them will be restored, and to their benefit.
Meanwhile, the relentless dynamism of the capital, its endless internal movements of people in and out, seems set to continue at least for now, bringing with it the types of frictions – between evolution and tradition, between continuity and change – that other east London boroughs lying closer to the centre have been wrestling with for a long time. Step out on to the street at Dagenham East, Dagenham Heathway or Elm Park stations and there’s a sense of entering frontier country on the capital’s long renewal journey east, of being just one step beyond the widening sourdough belt and all the pros and cons that that entails. Even Barking, just a stone’s throw away, feels different.
Those trends – more liberal professional and BAME Londoners – will assist Cruddas politically in the long term, just as they have assisted Labour in so many parts of London in modern times. But the immediate question, of course, is whether he can survive on 12 December. His campaign office is in an old union office, the last tall building standing on the old Ford plant site. Is that an omen? If so, what kind?
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